The Collegian
Sunday, April 11, 2021

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OPINION: Leaving America

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

The light of the dawn’s edge disclosed the city spires racing to meet me. On the sharp side of a feeling, I made London my point of entry on my way to a study-abroad program at the University of Edinburgh in the fall of 2019. It was as though money were no object — it was — and as though my itinerary did not guarantee that I would miss part of the program’s orientation — I would. Anyway, these were dead considerations; my plane was landing.

An American passport offered privileged entry into the United Kingdom via electronic gates, but I was a student headed north and needed a stamp in my passport. The immigration agent did not look at the documents testifying to my status as a student, all neatly packaged in an envelope bearing my American university’s sigil. The agent saw the country on my passport, stamped it, and I was on my way, soon to be released into that polis on the Thames.

It had been long years since my American passport saw action. When the 2008 global recession’s effects found home on my island of Grand Bahama in the Bahamas, money was tight and travel became a luxury. I can scarcely remember using my American passport in the years immediately before my matriculation at college. But those facts disappeared upon my arrival in the British isles, as though that passport had cast a spell on me, reducing me, in the eyes of all my interlocutors, to my presumed Americanness.

Each conversation — with my Airbnb host or the sweet Nigerian expat I met in London’s subway — made clear that my American citizenship was the most interesting thing about me. This was novel and somewhat strange. Only two years in the United States had inculcated the regrettable wisdom that if onlookers were to make any assumption about me, it would be on the basis of my race; I had forgotten that there were alternatives. But of course there were.

In the predominantly Black Bahamas, race was absent from any notion of my self-concept: asking my 16-year-old self to talk about race in The Bahamas would have been akin to asking a fish to describe the water. Plus, talking about race was an American thing. Although I carried the passport, I did not feel American in any substantive sense during my island upbringing, nor did I have to as a general thing. 

It was not so much that race — that is, phenotypic skin color — did not exist; only that, as a category, it was neither necessary nor sufficient to give you any actionable information about most people you might meet, which is the point of such categories. 

In the Bahamas, the jobless are mostly Black, but so are the Prime Minister and virtually all of his cabinet. The homeless are mostly Black, but so are most of the millionaires whose estates line the beachside. The criminals are mostly Black, but so are most of the judges who sentence them and the Members of Parliament under whose legislation they are convicted. 

Under such conditions, racial categories lose their predictive validity and more precise classifications are to be desired. A mere few years after coming to America, however, I had grown accustomed to my race as the immediate means of classification. So sturdy were the manacles of my troublesome American inheritance that I was shocked to rediscover that other possibilities existed.

Maybe this is the inevitable result, some 245 years into a nation birthed on the knife’s edge of a contradiction — the inevitable result of founding a country cloaked in the rhetoric of liberty while half a million of its inhabitants were in chains. The cleavages almost cut their own way into a society so conceived.

Nevertheless, leaving America also forced on me an abiding appreciation for the country of my birth: a nation not broken, but unfinished. The United States is diverse and tolerant in ways Europe could be only with Herculean effort, because some demons have already been faced by those who came before me.

One day fell into another on my London detour. When it was leaving time, I trekked to London’s King Cross train station, having settled on taking the scenic route through the English countryside up to my final destination at Auld Reekie. To my pleasure, my train called at the set time, and off north I went. Scotland carried its own complexities, but those were considerations for another time. I chose to languish in the still of the moment for a while.

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Contact contributor Gabe Josephs at gabe.josephs@richmond.edu.

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